Hardware

How to speed up a sluggish Mac

Wil Limoges shares his tips for speeding up a Mac that seems bogged down by performance problems.

You've got a slow Mac. No problem! I've got a couple of quick and easy tips for revitalizing your Mac.

The first place I always like to start when I'm experiencing undesirable performance is with my hardware configuration. With each generation of Mac OS X, Apple increases most of the system requirements and for good reason. Because applications are hungry for memory so they can perform more complicated tasks and often take up more space. Coincidentally, memory and hard drive space are often the culprit for systemic slowdown. Modern Macs (Intel Core2Duo and greater) are generally packed with an adequate amount of power, but depending on how you use your computer you may experience varying degrees of performance. I personally abuse my Mac. I often have twenty or more applications open at any given time, leave it on for months at a time only rebooting when an update is available, and pack my drive full of large graphic and video files. I'm a perfect candidate for poor computer performance; however, I also took my behavior into account when purchasing my last Mac by making sure I had ample memory and plenty of hard drive space.

Hard drive

Hard drives are more often a reason for slow down then any other component on a Mac in my experience. If a drive is full it prevents Mac OS X from being able to quickly swap information from memory to the drive when needed. If your cursor is a spinning pinwheel more frequently than it is an arrow, then there is a good chance your drive is either full or your drive may be experiencing a mechanical failure. To check your drive's capacity and space used, open up the Finder, navigate to your hard drive, select it, click File from the menu bar, and click Get Info. The Get Info pane will show you both the capacity of your drive and how much of that space is being used. If you have less then ten gigabytes then its very likely this is what is slowing you down. Purging files that you no longer need or migrating them onto another drive will help get you back up to speed quickly.

Upgrade your memory

Two gigabytes of memory is really the least amount of memory you can get away with under any modern version of Mac OS X; however, if you are at all like me and push your Mac pretty hard, then you should consider upgrading your memory. The more you add, the less likely you will be to experience performance issues.

Purging unnecessary files

Sometimes the slowness that you are experiencing is the cause of some troublesome file located in hard to find places. There are some easy ways to clear away some of these issue just by running through a few simple steps. PRAM reset is one of the first things that you can do to improve system performance and clear out potential issues. Resetting your PRAM clears out caches on your logic board that can sometime be responsible for a sluggish system. To reset your PRAM: reboot your computer and immediately after your Mac has shutdown, hold down [Option] + [Command] + [P] + [R] together during the boot process. After a few moment your Mac will reboot again after which you can release those keys. You have now successfully reset your PRAM.

Safe boot

Starting your Mac in safe boot will clear out your cache stored on your hard drive. This process can take a bit more time than resetting your PRAM but is another way to purge some files that can sometimes cause performance issues. To safe boot, simply reboot your computer and hold down the [Shift] key during the boot process until you reach the login screen. If you succeeded you will see the words Safe boot within the login pane. Log in and reboot to complete the process.

Archive and install

If things don't seem to be speeding up at this point, don't fret, there are still a few other things you can do to get your Mac back to factory. An archive and install can help to remove the gunk under the hood. Before proceeding with an archive and install, I highly recommend a backup of all your files just to be on the safe side. If a drive is too full or failing due to mechanical failure, you could be left with a machine that will not boot after running an archive and install. Also note that running an archive and install is different for Leopard, Snow Leopard, and Lion.
  • For Leopard you need to start the installation process and when you are asked to select a volume, select it, and click the Option button located at the bottom of the installation pane. From here you can select Archive and Install.
  • For Snow Leopard and Lion, each installation defaults to Archive and Install. Once you've completed the archive and install process, log in and be sure to remove the Previous System folder from the root directory of your hard drive.

Reinstall

This is by far my favorite way to speed up my Mac but also is the most risky. This time, however, I'm not just suggesting that you back up your drive first; it's required for this method.

  1. Assuming you have your drive backed up, you'll want to boot from your copy of Mac OS X or with Lion from Recovery Mode by holding down [Command] + [R] during boot.
  2. After booting, open the Disk Utility application on your installation disk and select your installed drive (not the partition).
  3. Click the Partition tab, and create a new single partition under Partition Layout. By creating a single partition as apposed to just erasing the drive your Mac will rewrite your partition tables eliminating any potential issues that could result from use over time.
  4. Click Apply and reinstall your Mac.
  5. Once you've completed installing your Mac, reboot and create a temporary admin user account with an easy-to-remember user name and password.
  6. Once you've logged in, connect the hard drive that you used to back up your Mac and navigate to the Users folder.
  7. Copy your User folder that you backed up to the local Users folder of your Mac. You'll be asked to enter you admin password. Enter the password and allow the drive to copy over completely.
  8. Once the process has completed, open up your system preferences from the Apple icon of the menu bar and click on Users.
  9. Create a new user and be sure to give it the same exact short name that your home folder was named and password from your previous installation and Click Create User.
  10. Mac OS X will notify you that a home folder with that name already exists, would you like to use it? Agree and your previous account from your backup will be fully restored on a fresh system.

There is one drawback to this method, which is that you will be required to reinstall all of your applications, but I always find that this is an opportunity to only install the applications that are needed and to leave out any of the unnecessary ones that I rarely use, making for a beautifully reinstalled Mac.

About

Wil Limoges is a Louisville, KY freelance web designer and Digital Savant at the vimarc group. He has had the pleasure of working for Apple as a Genius, loves science, and aspires to make great things!

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